It was 2005, and just seven games into his second stint of European football, Landon Donovan wanted to come back home. Naturally, Major League Soccer clubs tripped over themselves jockeying for position to land the prized U.S. star—ultimately with the Los Angeles Galaxy obtaining his rights.
Few could have fathomed back then what impact Donovan's return to the MLS has had nearly a decade later.
Donovan announced his retirement at the end of the 2014 season on his Facebook page Thursday. The MLS has turned from a struggling project to a must-watch product for any American soccer fan in his time playing, and that's no coincidence.
When the greatest American player to step on a pitch made his MLS debut, it was a high-flying three-year loan spell with the San Jose Earthquakes. Donovan racked up domestic player of the year awards each season. As he returned from his loan back to Bayer Leverkusen, he figured to be an impact player as a 23-year-old budding star.
And for MLS fans, he was as good as gone. Owned by a German club, courted by English clubs and coming off being named the best young player at the 2002 World Cup, Donovan's skill simply surpassed the domestic league.
But that didn't matter to him. He just wanted to play in the States, and his quick return to America resulted in a period of MLS prosperity that laid the foundation for today.
His return was somewhat stalemated thereafter by the departure of two other U.S. soccer standouts—goalkeeper Tim Howard to Manchester United and Clint Dempsey to Fulham. But as Donovan stayed put while winning MLS Cups with the Galaxy, the league continued to grow.
In 2007, the designated player rule was passed—allowing clubs to sign players for as much as they wanted without it impacting the league's tiny salary cap.
Of course, we've seen this summer how much the designated player rule can change things as New York City FC have signed Frank Lampard and David Villa without playing a match. Orlando City did the same, acquiring former world standout Kaka for their 2015 debut season.
Players like Beckham and Henry certainly set the stage for this MLS retirement plan. But if Donovan doesn't return in 2005 and reignite the league's aspirations, does the designated player rule even take effect?
Perhaps the most important domino effects of Donovan's thriving in the MLS lies in noticeable decisions from his former U.S. men's national team teammates. Dempsey, the new U.S. captain, shockingly returned to the MLS from Fulham, and Michael Bradley followed suit in a $10 million deal to leave Roma.
Both of these deals happened shortly before the 2014 World Cup, and it's safe to say America's impressive—and unsurprisingly dramatic—performance didn't do anything to oust the flames of excitement around the sport in the U.S.
Few American players are talented enough to play top-flight European football overseas, but the ones who are have desired to play in the MLS despite it. When Donovan did it, it was unconventional and uncanny. Now, it's a trend that is saving the MLS and allowing it to thrive.
ESPN's Arash Markazi noted the end of an era, but we're not entering one without a promising future:
Players like Henry, Keane, Cahill and Beckham have shown European players that finishing their careers in America isn't a bad move. And there's no doubting how huge that is for the league's popularity.
But someone needed to show America's home-born stars that it can pay dividends to stay and play at home, rather than in leagues that some of them are more than capable of competing in. Donovan did that and then some.
After his goal in a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in the MLS All-Star Game, Donovan's career totals now lead the league in every facet, per ESPN's Paul Carr:
The USMNT is the lifeblood of American soccer passion, and having those players whom many in the nation grew attached to playing domestically is by far the best thing for the MLS.
As Donovan closes the book on his footballing career, it's apparent that no player or person made a bigger impact on that trend than him.
Donovan will be missed sorely, not just in the MLS but across the entire scope of American soccer. However, all you will need to remember about him and his impact is the sight of today's U.S. stars carrying the MLS into a bright future.
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